What Is Dissociation? Part 2: Derealization
I remember a certain meeting with a girlfriend in a coffee shop. I arrived before her and sat working on a crossword puzzle while I waited. It wasn't long before she was standing next to me saying, "Hi!" I looked at her, and even though I knew my purpose in the coffee shop that day - to meet her - it took me a moment to understand who she was. It was a jarring moment in her Dissociative Identity Disorder education. "You didn't recognize me," she said. She was right. I didn't immediately recognize her, even though by then we'd spent hundreds of hours together. But it wasn't amnesia, the form of dissociation one might suspect, that prevented me from recognizing her. It was a different dissociative symptom: derealization.
What Is Derealization?
On Monday I talked about depersonalization, one of the five primary forms of dissociation. Derealization is another of those five core dissociative symptoms, and a common experience for people with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Dr. Marlene Steinberg explains in her book, The Stranger in the Mirror:
The feeling that the world around you is unreal or that events are not really happening is called derealization.... Instead of the déjà vu feeling that new places and people are familiar, you have the opposite feeling: that people or places that you should know very well are unfamiliar. You feel estranged or detached from the environment or have a sense that the environment is foreign to you or is not real.
Derealization And Dissociative Identity Disorder
Derealization isn't something only people with Dissociative Identity Disorder experience. It can manifest in response to:
- Traumatic events. If you found yourself a bystander to a convenience store robbery at gunpoint, for instance, you might feel like what you're witnessing isn't real.
- Extreme stress. Your wife of twenty-five years abruptly packed her things, left the home you've shared for most of your marriage, and filed for divorce. Your home might feel foreign to you the first night you spent there alone.
- Drug use. Marijuana users often report changes in visual perception, heightened senses, and the feeling that the world is like a dream.
- Lack of sleep. I've experienced exhaustion induced derealization plenty of times myself. My surroundings feel unreal and far away.
For people with DID, derealization is often chronic and not a result of immediate trauma, drug use, or exhaustion. There was nothing unusual going on in the coffee shop that day. I'd had plenty of sleep. The only drugs I'd ingested were prescription drugs that don't cause dissociative side effects. Nothing traumatic happened. I was simply relaxing with a crossword puzzle, waiting for a familiar face in a safe environment. I wish I understood why I experience derealization so frequently and under such normal conditions. But for now, all I know is (1) what this form of dissociation feels like, and (2) that it, along with the other four dissociative symptoms, is a regular part of my life. Hopefully in time I'll understand more.
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Gray, H. (2010, September 23). What Is Dissociation? Part 2: Derealization, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/dissociativeliving/2010/09/what-is-dissociation-part-2-derealization
Author: Holly Gray
Based on your description, it sounds like you struggle with moderate to severe dissociation. It may not be Dissociative Identity Disorder or Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DDNOS) but that doesn't mean it isn't serious. Remember that dissociation is not exclusive to dissociative disorders and can occur with other conditions - PTSD, for one - or as a transient coping mechanism due to overwhelming stress. And it's clear that you've lived with high stress for a long time.
Please understand, if you can, that these episodes of derealization and depersonalization are manifestations of a brain under duress. They are a way to give your psyche some distance. It's confusing and uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean something's wrong with you. In fact, the opposite is true. There's something very right with you - your mind knows what to do to give you some protection, some distance from that which creates the most stress for you. As those things -whether they be memories, emotions, pain, etc. - become less and less overwhelming, your dissociative symptoms will decrease in intensity and frequency.
So how do you do that? How do you make those things less and less overwhelming? I don't know if you have insurance, but talk therapy can be extremely beneficial because it's a safe, private space to voice things you might otherwise have no one to talk to about. Writing is also helpful for many people, particularly in conjunction with talk therapy. Art, too. Anything that allows you to confront the things your psyche is trying to protect you from in a safe way so you can gain perspective and whittle those things down to size.
It can take time to investigate therapy options and find a therapist. But you can start this process immediately by doing these things:
1. Breathe deeply. I know it sounds stupid, but breathing deeply makes your body feel safer and your mind feel calmer. Take 5 minutes out of every hour and just close your eyes and breathe deeply.
2. Write for 15 minutes a day. Just grab paper and pen and write. It doesn't matter what you write. And you can burn it afterwards if that feels safer to you. Just write. And don't stop for 15 minutes straight. Let whatever comes to mind come out on paper, no matter how nonsensical or mundane it seems to you.
3. Get enough sleep. De-stressing is really important because your mind is already under a lot of stress. Sleep is one of the best ways to de-stress. If you have a hard time sleeping, consider taking melatonin - it's a natural sleep aid and it's afforable and easy to find.
I hope you'll keep talking here. Dissociative Living readers absolutely understand how scary and confusing dissociation can be. And getting validation and support from others is a big part of whittling those stressful things down to manageable size.
Thank you for bringing that up. I hadn't connected the derealization with being engrossed in a task, but now that you mention it that makes very good sense. It took me a long time to notice that not everyone reads like I do, for instance. Not everyone falls so deeply into a story that the world around them ceases to exist. I do though, and I've no doubt that you're right about the connection between total immersion in something and an episode of derealization when pulled abruptly out of it. How interesting. Thank you for sharing that, Carla.
What you've described above is something I experience quite a bit. Not just w/ people I know that I know, but can't find their name or face, but also w/ tasks I've done a thousand times, but suddenly forgot how or driving somewhere & all of a sudden can't remember how to get where I'm going or where I am at the moment.
A GPS has really helped the getting lost thing & I have learned to make step by step instructions for important tasks that I can refer to at work to help me get through times I can't remember how to do something.
I make a lot of notes to keep me on track. Not full proof, but it helps.
Thanks for commenting.
A GPS! That's a great idea. Without certain technological advances - email & cell phones, for example - living with Dissociative Identity Disorder would be much more difficult for me. But I admit I've never thought of a GPS.
Welcome to HealthyPlace, Lenore!